After four weeks of posting, commenting and debating the role of ICT in community media, our project is over. You can find lessons learned in our evaluation, posted below.
Community Media Group A
Communication for Development, Malmö University
Part 1: Work distribution When we first set out to design our blog, we started out by asking ourselves what it was that we were hoping to accomplish during the task. We all agreed that we were looking forward to a frank and honest discussion about the literature, and wanted to make sure we encouraged others to participate as well. At the same time, we had to be realistic and not aim too high, as we only had four weeks to set up the blog, write all our posts and evaluate the work for our group paper.
Therefore, we decided to go with a simple, streamlined blog format that we did not have to spend too much time working on. Initially, we had imagined using Twitter as well, but as we started working on the blog we realized the type of discussions we were having were better suited for the long-form format. Our target group was other Communication for Development students, or others who wanted to learn more about ICT and community media. The blog itself was initially set up and administered by Linnea, but about half way through our blog experiment, we realized that the original layout was not optimal, and we changed it to create a better user experience. Linnea set up the new format, and Sophie designed the color scheme.
Since our group consisted of three people, we wanted to discuss community media from three different “angles”. Because we were hoping to engage others as well, we used three rather provocative questions as starting points for our discussion, thinking it might help others see more clearly what we wanted to be the main points for debate.
1: Do we need community media? An introduction to community media, defining our terms, making an argument for it is or is not important for development.
2: Should new media replace the old? A discussion of the pros and cons of new and old media.
3: Who is represented? A discussion about conflicts of interest/representation embedded in community media.
One person was responsible for initiating the discussion, and the other two were to comment on the initial post. We encouraged each other to argue against one another, to try to flesh out our theories and challenge preconceived notions we might have. In the beginning, we agreed that everyone should post one comment on each post, however, we quickly realized that we ended up commenting much more than that, once the conversation got going.
As for the tone and content, we felt it necessary to try to be at the same time academic and casual. The blog was to serve as a discussion of our course literature, and so it was important that we were not afraid to go in depth, but a blog is not an academic paper and we rather enjoyed the thought of a more free-flowing discussion forum. Therefore, we did not set a word or character limit to our posts and comments, but rather encouraged each participant to write as much as s/he wanted to.
Summary of blog posts
The first post by Linnea focused on the definition of community media where she finds that in addition to being under-researched community media is somewhat difficult to define. She notes for example that people belong to many different communities with varying degrees of cohesion and with increasing global interconnectedness it is not easy to know where to draw the line between community and alternative media. Linnea accepts Howley´s definition which involves a willingness within the group to sustain a “deep horizontal community” but she problematizes the aspect of it being a local phenomenon and place bound. She points to groups like Anonymous which identify themselves as a community and control their own media outlets from different parts of the world. The difficulty in defining a community was apparent in the ensuing comments to Linnea`s post with Isaac arguing that the focus of community media is space bound even though actors maybe scattered all over the world. Sophie accepted the broad understanding of a community and that community media can be formed by a group of persons with similar interests who use media to show their work and ideas and gather somehow even though they live in different parts of the world. She however questions how groups like Anonymous purpose is well determined citing their anarchist taste.
In the end the trio agreed on the broad understanding of a community. This discussion drew other students from outside the group and asking us to join the discussion on their own blog with one Magdalena Hansson asking if in counter-weighting majority community, mainstream ideas community media does not run the risk of entrenching the influence of already existing local elites.
The second post authored by Isaac was on whether new media should replace the old. Here, Isaac first looks at the four characteristics of new media namely that its technology is always changing and at times combined with older technologies, it is highly networked and ubiquitous. He then argues that while these characteristics are in their own right advantages of new media technologies over the old insofar as enhancing participation in socio-economic and cultural matters cautious optimism is necessary because of the digital divide. New media can pose security challenges to the state in some political contexts. It can lead to cultural fragmentation and self-centredness, a point Sophie disputes arguing that websites like Facebook, YouTube allow discussion on topics we wouldn`t hear about otherwise. Because old media is already available even in the poorest of countries and is easily controlled by the state, this more or less guarantees is continued existence for some time to come. Isaac concludes that the question of whether the new should replace the old is not easily generalizable but should be addressed based on a contextual basis. Linnea also thinks both old and new have a role to play and gives a stark no to replacement of old media arguing for example that while new media provides unprecedented opportunities for expression and interaction it can actually marginalise those who do not have access to the language and skills needed to perform these tasks. Linnea then concludes that what media practitioners are actually doing in practice is a combination of old and new technologies leaving the distinction a mere academic exercise.
Sophie authored the third and final post entitled “Who is represented? Conflict of interests: The different facets of new media. In acknowledging the wide options for communicating offered by new technologies, Sophie notes that technical, financial and legal factors limit access. She further argues that that notion that journalism creates opportunities for ongoing dialogue and acts as a watchdog on the decision makers should not be taken on face value.
This is because as she argues professional journalism and personal initiatives/interests with blog and social network interactions are mixed on the internet. It is naïve to think that each member´s ideas, thoughts and opinions in a community are well expressed using new media.
In response thereto, Isaac focused on a related phenomenon which play into the inequalities raised by Sophie. Conflict of interest is related to problems of who is represented because the net effect is that some people are left out. Here, Isaac argues for example that institutionalised mainstream media especially where it is state controlled seeks to reach out to a wide receptive audience but expanding its reach using the internet is usually seen as presenting a threat. That conflict of interest explains why the Cuban government controls students at the university cited in the Incommunicado case study. Large digital corporate investors who invest in infrastructure are interested in growing an increasing influence but only go where profit margins are high and for example therefore poor rural areas are marginalised. Isaac further argues that the rapidity of technological change affects and marginalises poor and late comer users who can hardly catch up. This point was disputed by Sophie who argued that the benefits of new technology far outweigh the disadvantages. She further argued that even the less tech savvy elderly are not always left out as there are social programmes that help them to catch up especially in developed countries. A common recurrent strategy in these kind of arguments is contextual analysis. Linnea brought a feminist dimension to this discussion by implying that discussion on the representativeness of new media or lack thereof should be extended to gender analyses.
The foregoing summary of the three posts and attendant comments reflect in my view reflect both areas of divergence and convergence by group members on certain aspects. This made the exchanges all the more interesting and mutually beneficial.